Don’t Take It So Personally

Feminism’s boundary problem.

About 130 years ago in England, an unlikely coalition of feminists, trade unionists, and clergymen transformed the sexual mores of the day. The alliance began progressively enough, as a campaign against a law authorizing the police to round up prostitutes–and other women suspected of loose morals–and force them to submit to pelvic exams. The law was repealed. Thrilled at their newfound clout, feminists looked around for another issue.

They found it in white slavery, or “traffic in women.” The cry went out. Newspapers took it up, running story after story about virgins sold to drooling aristocrats. New laws were passed. The “social-purity” movement was born.

Things spun quickly out of the feminists’ control. Whipped into a frenzy, citizens formed the National Vigilance Association, but rather than protecting impoverished virgins the vigilantes conducted a crusade against prostitutes, homosexuals, music halls, theaters, paintings of nudes, and French novels (which they burned). At first, feminists joined in the fun. But when the misogyny and terror of the social-purity movement became impossible to ignore, they withdrew into the background. Which is where they remained for the next 20 years, discredited and humiliated, until the next wave of feminist activism came around.

Feminist historian Judith Walkowitz published an essay about this incident back in 1983, during the height of feminist anti-pornography fervor. She wanted to show what can happen when feminism joins forces with the public-decency crowd. Now what can happen has happened. The social-purity movement that is the Clinton sex scandal has at least some of its roots in feminist thought, and the embarrassed mumbles of Gloria Steinem, et al., on the Lewinsky question show that feminists know it. For instance: Why were Paula Jones’ lawyers able to depose Clinton on every sordid detail of his sex life? Because of sexual harassment laws that say a man’s entire sexual past may be considered relevant in a lawsuit, even though a woman’s may not. This arrangement was one of the triumphs of feminism over the past two decades.

Like its 19th century counterpart, the women’s movement will be forced to retreat from the field, confused and in disarray, if it doesn’t come to terms with its mistakes. The biggest one (as many have pointed out) was blindly following the lead of that most illiberal of thinkers, Catherine MacKinnon. With her belief that unwanted sexual advances and utterances (and even, in some cases, wanted ones) degrade women so profoundly that it’s worth limiting free speech to prevent them, MacKinnon laid the intellectual groundwork for today’s sexual harassment laws. Before today, the most egregious outcome of MacKinnonism was the Clarence Thomas hearings. Liberal feminists (myself included, I’m sorry to say) were so eager to “educate the public” about sexual harassment, to say nothing of wanting to get rid of an anti-abortion Supreme Court candidate, that they were willing to overlook the frightening precedent being set. A man’s political career was nearly ended and his private life pawed through while an entire nation watched, even though the charges against him were never subjected to the rigorous standards of evidence that would have prevailed in a court of law.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, before feminism came to mean anti-pornography statutes and laws against “hostile work environments” and other forms of censoriousness, there were all kinds of feminists. There were the liberal kind, such as Betty Friedan, who believed in the Equal Rights Amendment, day care, birth control, and abortion. There were the libertarian kind, such as Walkowitz, who argued for sexual freedom, no matter how troublesome the consequences. (There were also feminists who just seem goofy in retrospect, such as women’s-music types and flannel-wearing lesbian separatists.)

The healthy diversity of feminist life was killed off by two things: 1) In the late 1970s, after the Equal Rights Amendment failed to pass, the women’s movement deliberately switched from the political arena to the courts. A legal strategy for change had worked for Thurgood Marshall of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, so why not? The answer is as true for women’s rights as it has been for civil rights: A movement always suffers when it fails to subject its ideas to wide public debate. 2) Influenced by MacKinnon and others, what the women’s movement decided to seek in the courts was equal protection plus: the right to work plus special protection against nasty people in the workplace; the right to make their own sexual decisions plus special protection against older, savvier guys who take advantage. But rights are not necessarily cost-free. A relentless expansion of my rights usually ends up imposing burdens on your rights, or even on other rights of my own. The fury that followed some of the more questionable expansions of women’s rights has made it difficult to talk about anything else.

During a debate on feminism, the philosopher Hannah Arendt once passed a note to a colleague that said, “What do we lose when we win?” It was the sort of dour remark that made Arendt unpopular among her female peers. That’s a shame, because Arendt’s thought offers a way out of feminism’s current jam. She stood for the clear separation of the public from the private sphere, a distinction dismissed as patriarchal a long time ago by feminists who thought it denigrated domestic life. But failing to see the importance of this distinction has got feminism into the trouble it’s in today.

To Arendt, the elimination of the public-private distinction is what distinguishes 20th century totalitarianism from earlier and lesser forms of oppression. Even in the days of absolute monarchs, a person’s home was his (or, to a lesser degree, her) castle. But totalitarian governments want to control your private life down to your psyche and to mold you into a New Man or New Woman on whatever model they’re peddling.

Conversely, Arendt’s public realm is the exact opposite of the private realm: It’s where you’re not protected and shouldn’t be. A classicist, Arendt saw the public arena as a version of the Athenian agora–a world of political theater, where the harsh light of publicity shines upon fierce debate. Arendt’s conception of the public was phrased in quasimilitaristic language almost expressly designed to irritate feminists (it didn’t, but only because they had stopped listening). She declared that, for the public realm to function effectively, participants must display a love of glory. It is a hunger for glory and all that comes with it–a willingness to sacrifice one’s personal desires to the common good; a sense of honor, dignity, and fair play–that allows politics to rise above a mere squabbling among interests. This is a spirit feminism lacks, which is why it has allowed women’s interests as a class to trump the common interest in privacy.

Rediscovering Arendt’s public-private split wouldn’t necessarily entail abandoning the feminist notion that the personal is political. We’re all better off because feminists turned hitherto private topics into subjects of public debate. Who’d want to go back to the days when you couldn’t even talk about condoms? The problem is that we’ve reversed the phrase: We’ve made the political personal. It’s one thing to put sensitive subjects out there for discussion. It’s another thing to welcome jurists, reporters, and the rest of the American public into our bedrooms. As it turns out, it may not be such a good idea to welcome them into our workplaces and schools either, at least not as warmly as we have. So should we do away with all forms of sexual harassment law? Or just parts of it–the hostile work environment clause, say, or the gender-biased evidentiary rules? It will take years to find the best place to draw the line, and we’ll never get it perfectly right. The important thing is to realize that it’s way past time to move it.